Embryo research – let it grow

The UK government has finally changed the law restricting research on embryo stem cells. But why did it dither for so long?

Helene Guldberg

Topics Science & Tech

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On Tuesday night MPs voted, by a two-thirds majority, to amend the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act and relax existing rules on embryo research. Their decision is welcome – if two years too late.

Research on embryonic cells – particularly when using the cloning technology that produced Dolly the sheep – could revolutionise the treatment of degenerative diseases of the heart, liver, kidneys and neurones, such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease. Damaged tissue, due to strokes, burns, cirrhosis, and so on, could also potentially be replaced.

John Harris, professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester and a member of the Human Genetics Commission, is ‘delighted’ with the vote. ‘This is excellent: primarily for those suffering from diseases that stem cell research may offer help for; and, secondly, it is good for British science.’ Alistair Kent, director of the Genetic Interest Group, says the Commons vote is a triumph for common sense. ‘It is the logical extension in the law to reflect changes in practice, in order to allow research to develop.’

But why has this decision been so long coming? As far back as 1998 – after a period of consultation and research – the Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) issued a joint recommendation to the government to change the law to allow research on embryo stem cells to develop. But in the face of public sensitivities around BSE and genetic modification, the government delayed making a decision. Rather it commissioned, in June 1999, yet another report from another committee. Lord Winston, at the time, described the government’s inaction as ‘immoral’ and ‘pathetic’.

Ministers sat on the second government report, ‘Stem Cells: Medical Progress with Responsibility’, by the chief medical officer’s advisory group, for several months before it was published in August 2000. The irony is that this report put forward essentially identical recommendations to the HGAC/HFEA two years previously – again highlighting that ‘stem cells have enormous potential as a source of new tissue for therapeutic cloning’.

‘Why is the government so timid on embryo research given the potential rewards?’ writes Toby Andrew, in a forthcoming article on spiked. ‘What are the risks involved? Beyond raising the possibility that the research and resulting treatments might fail and that there are many technical hurdles to be overcome, the answer currently appears to be: very few. This is hardly surprising since the required research has barely begun: halted by the government’s palpable failure of nerve in the face of opposition.’

Others have been slightly less critical. ‘I would have been happier if the government had acted earlier following recommendations to relax restrictions on embryo research in a number of reports – including from bodies such as the HFEA and the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’, says Alistair Kent. ‘But, I suppose, better late than never.’

Yet if regulatory measures restrict scientific research, and there are no sound reasons for the restrictions being in place, then it is the government’s job to change the law. Even the amendment passed last night falls short of giving scientists the scope they need to develop their research fully. It is not good enough to argue that this is a controversial and complex issue: if the government lacks the nerve to make tough
decisions, it should at least get out of the laboratory and leave scientists to do their job.

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Topics Science & Tech


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